Africa can invent: Leapfrogging in unsuspected areas

One only needs to pick up a magazine or leading newspaper to read about innovations that are sweeping across Africa. From M-Pesa, a mobile money transfer service invented in Kenya that has revolutionised African banking practices, to South Africa hosting the Square Kilometre Array, the world’s largest and most powerful radio telescope ever constructed. This is quite different from common perception.

Carlos Lopes, executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa.

Carlos Lopes, executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa.

Should Africa’s attainments come as a surprise? Not really. Leading science and innovation has run in African veins since ancient times. Its accomplishments, however, have seldom been attributed or publicised. They range from algebraic equations born some 35,000 years ago to the engineering genius of the pyramids; from the astronomical brilliance of the Dogon people, to architectural masterpieces of Timbuktu or Great Zimbabwe.

Advancing Africa’s Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) and its effective application to economic transformation is the new challenge. According to the UNESCO Science Report 2010, Research and Development (R&D) in Africa still attracts less public funding than military, heath or education sectors. A survey of 19 African countries by the AU-NEPAD in 2012 revealed that only Malawi, Uganda and South Africa had invested more than 1% of their GDP in R&D, while the rest spent between 0.2 and 0.5%. The Science Report 2010 estimates that only 0.3% of GDP is dedicated to R&D on average across the continent. This is seven times less than the investment made in industrialised countries.

The continent has also only registered 0.6% of worldwide patent applications, compared to 51% in Asia. Africa recorded 0.4% of gross domestic R&D expenditure compared to 1.6% for Asia. Although innovation is pervasive, the value of innovations made, their quality, relevance and impact are overshadowed by limited investment in knowledge generation and commercialisation. The situation is further compounded by the shortage of highly trained scientists and engineers. In 2007, one could count only 164 researchers per million Africans against a world average of 1,081. Despite lagging behind globally, there is an air of excitement brought about by the rapid adoption of new technologies and the explosion of frugal innovation hubs which are helping drive the continent’s transformational agenda.

African countries such as Kenya, Rwanda, Morocco, Nigeria or South Africa have the ingredients to take off the same way technology leaders such as China, the Republic of Korea or Brazil did during previous technological revolutions. China’s rise, for example, took place over a period of just three decades under reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping lifting more than 400m people out of poverty. Its most successful ingredient was the establishment of numerous Special Economic Zones (SEZ) and their industrial clusters. In just 15 years since their formation, the clusters accounted for half of China’s high-tech gross industrial output and one third of its high-tech exports. Today China is the second largest economy in the world. If other nations made it, Africa should have the same ambition. The continent is already showcasing potential and favourable opportunities.

Why now?

In terms of economic growth, Africa is doing well. An increased prevalence of peace, improved governance and strong internal demand has revived investor confidence. Foreign direct investment is growing faster than in any other region in the world. Dividends are also to be reaped from the eurozone crisis or Chinese increasing unit costs, for example, in export competitiveness and diversification to new markets like the BRICS. This, coupled with the increase in revenues from commodity exports, mean African governments have the opportunity to allocate more funds to STI and start stepping out of the low value trap. Some countries are already investing in innovative renewable and clean energy sectors; with the abundance of unexploited renewable energy, Africa has the potential to leap to a new clean techno-economic paradigm. Growing awareness of the impact of environmental degradation and climate change is giving rise to new R&D priorities like clean energy technologies or bio-agriculture. The European Commission’s Institute for Energy suggests that 0.3 % of the sunlight that shines on the Sahara and Middle East deserts could supply all of Europe’s energy needs.

Africa’s demographic trends, including rapid urbanisation, offer opportunities if a proper demographic dividend is introduced in development strategies. Projections suggest that in less than three generations, 41% of the world’s youth will be African. By 2050, Africa’s youth will constitute over a quarter of the world’s labour force. A correlation can be drawn from Asian emerging markets, where 40% of its rapid economic growth between 1965 and 1990 was attributable to an increase in the working age population. Africa’s digitally savvy youth can be positioned to help push for industrialisation. Projections indicate that by 2030, 50% of Africans will be living in cities. Larger groups of people living in close proximity allow for economies of scale and closer interaction of skilled and qualified people sharing their knowledge and innovations. Cities in Africa already generate approximately 55% of the continent’s total GDP. With more growth they could match developed countries where cities generate approximately 90% of their GDP. The opportunities for economic growth, poverty reduction, human development and innovation are profound.

Informal sector

Africa’s often criticised informal sector happens to be one of the most inventive environments. It is a breeding ground for frugal innovation and resilient entrepreneurs who can literally make treasure out of trash, from tools to grass cutting machines to water pumps to anything one may need in that environment. Technologists of this informal economy represent a huge pool of indigenous talent that Africa must engage in its industrialisation process. The informal sector constitutes a very important size in the economy. Traditionally, it was associated with increasing poverty and weak employment conditions. Now it includes investment by entrepreneurs seeking to reduce costs related to wages, retirement pensions and other social benefits. Organising the informal sector and recognising its role as a profitable activity will contribute further to harnessing Africa’s STI potential, as well as formally recognising and recording it.

The advent of the ICT democratisation is offering Africa’s polity opportunities to leapfrog the industrialisation stage and bridge technological divides. Africa is already bypassing traditional means with technologies such as wireless, satellite bandwidth and frugal mobile technologies that have relatively lower physical infrastructure requirements and investment costs. Ecobank has built a financial transactions platform now covering 35 countries, while Airtel is the worldwide number one in introducing common rates for voice and data use in 18 countries. The continent is well positioned to absorb, adapt and build on the vast quantities of scientific and technical knowledge already available worldwide to solve its local socio-economic challenges from agriculture to health and environment. Regional economic integration could create more. Without strong integration the narrow market size of most countries will act as a liability. Africa needs to embrace the concept of locomotives where key hubs act as pullers for the rest.